10 Questions with Erika Falk

Covering Appearance, Ignoring Substance

Few Americans are aware that more than thirty women have run for the presidency of the United States. Victoria Woodull, a spiritualist turned successful Wall Street broker, was the first, in 1872. Her name did not even make it on the ballot, and it would take another half-century before women won the right to cast their vote in elections.

In Women for President:Media Bias in Eight Campaigns, Erika Falk studied the presidential campaign of Victoria Woodhull and seven other prominent female presidential candidates--Belva Lockwood, Margaret Chase Smith, Shirley Chisholm, Patricia Schroeder, Lenora Fulani, Elizabeth Dole and Carol Moseley Braun. In particular, she looked at the way the U.S. media treated these women in comparison to their male counterparts. To her shock and dismay, her research showed that not much has changed since 1872.

Great Ideas Podcast, John Hopkins University
In a year when a woman is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination, Erika Falk discusses eight women U.S. presidential candidates and their complicated relationship to the news media.


AP Photo/ Jim Cole
According to Erika Falk, the U.S. media's bias against women candidates still persists. She claims that Hillary Clinton has received much less coverage than her male counterpart, Barak Obama. View Larger >
In your book Women for President: Media Bias in Eight Campaigns, you look at the way the media has portrayed eight U.S. women who have run for president, comparing their coverage to that of their male counterparts. Have things changed much over time?

This is the most surprising result of this research. I looked at eight campaigns that dated between 1872 and 2004. The data spanned three centuries; however, there were almost no indications of change over time. The disparities that were present in 1800 were also evident in recent campaigns!

Can you share some major trends you found?

The most striking finding is that women get less coverage than equivalent men who run in the same races. On average, men get twice as many articles as women and the articles are 7 percent longer. Men also get more substantive coverage. About 27 percent of paragraphs written about men are about issues, while just 16 percent of those about women are about issues.

Do stereotypes factor into the coverage of women candidates?

There was ample evidence that traditional sex roles and stereotypes played a role in the coverage. Women were more likely to have their accomplishments diminished by having honorary titles such as "Senator" and "Representative" dropped than were men. In comparison to men, women were more likely to be described as emotional, described physically, and have their family mentioned.

Your book was published prior to Senator Clinton's campaign in the 2008 Presidential elections, but can you tell us what you are seeing with the coverage of her campaign right now, especially in comparison to coverage of Senator Obama?

I did a pilot study of Clinton and Obama campaigns that looked at press coverage in January of 2007, when both declared their intention to run. The results were mixed. On one hand, Clinton got less coverage than Obama--consistent with past patterns. Clinton also had her more prestigious title (Senator) dropped in favor of the less prestigious "Mrs." or "Ms." It happened much less frequently that Obama's Senator title was dropped in favor of "Mr."

On the other hand, there were ways in which Clinton was treated better than historical women (though not as well as typical men). For example, historically, the appearance of women is mentioned in about 40 percent of articles about them. For men the percent is much lower (14 percent), but Clinton had her appearance mentioned 29 percent of time.

Do you think it's more important for women candidates to worry about their appearance than for male candidates? Would you offer any advice to candidates regarding appearance?

My research indicates that women are described physically four times as often as equivalent men who run in the same race. The press gives a lot of attention to what women candidates wear, their hair, and their beauty. The more time the press spends focusing on how women look, the less space there is available for information that might help voters make up their minds.

The focus on appearance may also be a subtle way to cue voters that the candidate is not a serious one. My suggestion: women candidates should come up with a fashion strategy that is designed to minimize comment. Dress conservatively with as little change as possible so as to minimize focus.

According to a February 2006 poll by CBS News and The New York Times, 92 percent of Americans say they would vote in a presidential election for a qualified female candidate. When asked if America is ready for a woman president, 55 percent of those surveyed said "yes." Do you think there is still a difference between what people perceive and what they actually do at the polls?

Part of the problem with polling about a woman president is that the questions ask about an un-named woman, which encourages people to rely on stereotypes. In a real election, people may have sexist attitudes, but they are put together with party preference, the issue positions of real candidates, and the characters of the people running. Research I conducted with a colleague indicates that party preference is a much stronger force than sexism. During the last election we asked Democrats who said they would NOT vote for "a woman" president, for whom they would vote if Senator Hillary Clinton ran against President Bush. The majority of those saying they would not vote for "a woman" preferred Clinton to Bush in a real head to head match-up.

One of the patterns you talk about in your book is the "novelty frame." What is that and why should we be worried about it?

This year, The New York Times noted that Senator Clinton was the "first woman with a real shot at the presidency." However, if you look back, the same was said about Elizabeth Dole in 2000. In that year, the New York Times described Dole as "the first woman to become a really serious candidate for President of the United States." Of course, back in 1972 the Seattle Times penned, "Representative Shirley Chisholm today became the first black woman to begin a serious bid for the presidency of the United States." The truth is that each woman who has run for the presidency has been framed as though her campaign was a first.

The problem with framing all women who run as "firsts" is that it suggests that women are perpetual anomalies in the political sphere. This makes women appear more risky as candidates, less likely to win, and less natural in the world of politics. It feeds the stereotype that somehow women candidates are operating outside their normal place.

Is what you are seeing unique to the United States or does it happen elsewhere as well?

My work only looks at women candidates in the United States, but one study compared the press coverage of international women presidents and prime ministers to the coverage of their immediate (male) predecessors or successors, the women heads of state received less coverage than did the men. This makes me think the kind of patterns I found are not unique to the United States.

What might be some of the potential effects of unequal coverage?

The obvious concern is that, if the press does not treat men and women equally, women will have less access to power. Such a trend flies in the face of the American ideal of a fair and democratic process. However, this is not my greatest concern. Studies at lower level races show similar patterns in terms of biased coverage, yet other studies show that at lower level races, women win just as often as men do. What is clear from this is that women are capable of compensating for biased coverage. What worries me is that the way the press covers (and ignores) women presidential candidates may deter women from running. Press bias is important, but the single biggest factor in women's low representation in higher office is that they rarely run. My concern is that the way the press covers women may suppress women's political ambitions.

What do you think can be done to improve coverage the women candidates receive?

Women themselves can do a lot. Women can devise a campaign strategy that takes into account the kinds of bias they are likely to encounter. They can emphasize issues, traditional masculine characteristics associated with leadership, and rationality. They can reframe attempts to cast their campaigns as symbolic or novel. They can set up media monitors to call and write letters when coverage is unfair. The most important thing women can do is run for office in greater numbers. I suspect that when women start running in equal numbers as men, the press will become less biased.

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